Enough said? [by Matt Baker]
While I wholly appreciate writer/creator Miranda Harcourt’s personal sentiment that “The poetry of the way real people speak has always been [her] favourite form”, I cannot help but reflect on exactly how it is that verbatim theatre has the ability to make the impact that it can. Recently, I was confronted with the contention that it is impossible for dialogue based on, for example, a legal transcript to ever come close to the prose of the greatest playwrights. The answer, I believe, is the editing of the text into an engaging narrative.
Verbatim was co-written 20 years ago with William Brandt, but, as director Jeff Szusterman himself discovered, the material is in no way dated. Renee Lyons plays six characters in total, from both the offender’s and victim’s immediate families, the format being yet another testament to her chameleonic abilities. The variation of attitudes from the people on both sides, Szusterman’s pacing, and Lyons’ characterisations, result in not only contrasting shades of light within the inherently dark content, but a punchy piece of theatre that seems almost too brief.
Portraits, on the other hand, written with Stuart McKenzie 10 years later/ago, plays out more like a 20/20 interview without the stimulation of television editing. Actor Fraser Brown is incredibly easy to watch, commanding the audience’s attention as much in his silences as with his dialogue, his naturalistic cadence resonating that of a once happy now melancholic man. Actress Jodie Rimmer starts off slightly theatrical, especially in her vocals, but eases into her role as the victim’s mother, and her role as the offender’s ex-wife gives some relief in what would otherwise be an incredibly depressing show.
Both plays rely predominantly on the text, with an aptly minimalistic set, and accentuating sound (Adam Cooper) and lighting (Michael Forkert) design – regardless of opening night technical issues. Unlike Verbatim, however, Portraits has no humourous or anecdotal elements. While this may seem like an obvious expectation given the subject matter, the result is that the narrative becomes very tedious very quickly. I come back now to the idea of creating an engaging narrative through editing verbatim text, and, unfortunately, Portraits does not make the cut.
In the programme, Last Tapes Theatre Company acknowledges that these plays may be “particularly distressing” for certain people, and provides contact numbers for Rape Crisis and Victim Support, as well a link to JustSpeak. While the full cathartic effects of the play are lost on me, I am reminded of Last Tapes’ aim “to engage with and enrich the community”, as well as one of Verbatim’s opening lines, “How you take it is up to you.”
Verbatim: Two Plays is presented by Last Tapes Theatre Company and Just Speak and plays at The Basement Theatre 12-16 November; Wellington’s Newton Community and Cultural Centre 20-23 November; Mangare Arts Centre 25-27 November. Details see Last Tapes Theatre Company.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview review by Nik Smythe
If you need to talk to someone or want further information, these organisations are able to help:
Rape Crisis (09) 360 4001
Victim Support 0800 842 846